David McKelvy White (1901-1945)

June 1, 2010
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David McKelvy White was a founding member and Executive Secretary of the VALB, serving in that capacity at the time of his death in July of 1945. Dave, as he was known to friends, was the eldest son of George White and Charlotte McKelvy White, and spent his childhood in Marietta, Ohio. After amassing considerable wealth in the oil industry, George turned to politics, managing Democrat James Cox’s 1920 presidential campaign, and serving as Ohio governor during the first years of the Depression, during which he emerged as an outspoken critic of the New Deal. David’s letters to his father, which George kept, reveal a warm and mutually supportive relationship, despite their considerable differences.

The reserved and bookish David earned degrees from Princeton and Columbia, and taught English Literature at Brooklyn College from 1928 to 1937. During this time David joined the Communist Party, and edited his faculty unit’s newspaper.

In the middle of the spring semester in 1937, he abruptly abandoned his teaching post to join the Lincolns in the defense of Madrid. Milton Felsen befriended White shortly before they crossed the Pyrenees into Spain. One humorous recollection in Felsen’s memoir, The Anti-Warrior, conjures up the seemingly effete professor: “I looked over at Dave who was holding his rifle at arm’s length and examining it gingerly through his heavy glasses as though it were some rare museum artifact. ‘You couldn’t hit a bull in the ass with a steam shovel, Dave. Why don’t you put the damn thing some place where it won’t hurt anybody. . .’” While Dave may not have looked the part, his comrades marveled at his grit. In his eulogy, Milton Wolff recounted how White volunteered for front line duty when others, who had loudly boasted of their prowess, took the first opportunity to be reassigned away from the action. Wounded following the Brunete offensive, White returned to the US where he assumed responsibility for both the FALB and VALB. David hoped to publish his “Sketch of a Journal” about his time in Spain, but never did.

Following Pearl Harbor, White served for two years as Educational Director for the Detroit Worker’s School. Recognized by the CP leadership as “politically solid. . . very responsible, and trustworthy,” David’s star within the party was on the rise, which attracted unwanted attention. Subpoenaed to appear before both the New York State Rapp-Coudert Committee and HUAC, White refused to testify. The FBI took an interest in his activities soon after his move to Detroit and placed him on the custodial detention list.

As WWII drew to an end, David returned to New York and resumed his responsibilities with the VALB, producing the pamphlet “Franco’s Spain. . . America’s Enemy” and lobbying participants at the San Francisco Conference to bar Spain from the nascent United Nations. Tragically, White died in July 1945, apparently by his own hand. His motivations remain obscure, although explanations tend to find their source in his imminent expulsion from the CP. David’s openly gay lifestyle (having lived with a long-time partner during the 1920s and 30s), combined with his close associations with recently denounced CP leader Earl Browder, made him a target.

I would welcome any further information as I continue my research on this centrally important ALB figure. Please contact me at Dr. Matthew Young, Chair, History Department, Marietta College, Marietta, Ohio 45750, 740.376.4627, youngs@marietta.edu.

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